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Chris Gethard and his Magic Bus of GethTards | Photo: GLK Creative

By: Lucas Hazlett

Chris Gethard is one of the hardest-working men in the New York comedy scene. With a decade of performing and teaching at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre under his belt, Gethard has amassed an enviable resume of writing and performing that has led to a starring role in Comedy Central's "Big Lake," a regular spot in the theater’s flagship show, ASSSSCAT 3000, and his own popular variety hour, "The Chris Gethard Show."

This Saturday at midnight at the UCB Theatre, Gethard will host "The Telethon of Shame," a special edition of "The Chris Gethard Show," which he says will be a rare and noble confluence of weirdness, violence and good-hearted intentions. I spoke with Gethard about the telethon, what he champions in his students, and what he would do if he were ever imprisoned.

Most of the interviews you've been doing lately have -- for obvious reasons -- focused primarily on your new Comedy Central show "Big Lake." I would like to focus more on “The Chris Gethard Show." How did this show originate and what do you think it is that's made it so popular?
I think I started in 2007 doing a show called “Magic Box of Stories,” which was true stories from my life. Before that I had been doing a lot of storytelling at ASSSSCAT and “Nights of Our Lives” and that kind of built to the show, and that was the first show where I felt like I had any buzz. That show kind of led to me to doing this bus tour where I took 60 fans of the show all over New Jersey and showed them the sites where the stories took place. It was just this really weird thing to do, and over the years I have done a few weird things. I had done another show where improvisers did stand up, a tournament, and each loser was shot with paint balls. I did another show years ago where I organized a bunch of comedians who didn’t know what they were doing to box each other. So I have always been interested in doing these sort of out of the box things. The whole goal of the show is every month do something no one has seen before and probably won’t see again. And for better or worse, some have been really good, some have failed pretty hard.

With The Stepfathers | Photo: Melissa GomezAs far as why it’s popular, I think it’s just really weird, but we still put a lot of effort and try to make it feel really professional even though it’s strange and bizarre. I think that combination works. There have been so many comedians to come out of the city in the past few years who have gone on to great success and that’s a great thing, but I think it’s maybe made people walk a certain line who are being conscious of playing the game. I think this show is definitely not that. There’s a lot of things in here that could actually probably damage people’s reputations and careers. I think people appreciate seeing something that let’s its guard down.

The theme of the next Chris Gethard Show is “The Telethon of Shame." How did this show come about?
I had a friend who was a co-performer and student of mine and last year he lost a baby. You can imagine it’s one of the hardest things to watch someone go through, I can’t imagine going through it myself. My friend was so strong. There’s a lot of us who are close with him. He’s a big supporter of the March of Dimes now so I thought maybe we could design a show that will raise money and use the popularity of the show toward something more noble than us standing on stage and pissing our pants for a crowd to laugh at.

What we basically came up with as the structure is the show is free and because it’s for charity we’re going to try and stuff [the UCB theatre] full of people. we have a number of comedians who have said I will do a predetermined stunt for x-amount of dollars. I’m going to host the show naked if I can raise $750. My friend Don Fanelli is going to wax his whole body for $1000. Will Hines will smell anything for a dollar. A dude’s going to drink his own pee for $1000. I think people know that if you go to the Chris Gethard Show you’re going to see something crazy and this show you’re going to see more crazy things than ever with the extra bonus of knowing that your money is ultimately going toward something good.

A lot of the people you work with on the show are former students of yours. What do you look for or see in a student that makes you want to work with him/her outside of class?
I’ve taught for six or seven years now at UCB. I would say 99% of my students I really root for and want to see them succeed.

So many people are funny and dedicated as improvisers and what so many of us forget is that at the end of the day, taking all the skills you learn in a class and figuring out how to put your actual honest voice at the forefront of all that, using those skills as a platform for your voice, is a very important thing. We all learn from curriculums and we all learn the skills that different schools set out and those are all useful things that unlock comedy, but I wish we could put a little more priority in saying “now what do you have to say with it?” I see a little too much of people trying to erase what’s unique about them in order to get the skills right and I think they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

I had a class where [a student] did a whole show for half an hour where he played a foot. He only played a foot. Other people were changing and editing and he managed to just play a foot. It was the weirdest thing and maybe in some ways counterproductive but it’s also I like anyone who thinks like that. If I can become someone who uses the fact that I’m a teacher to sort of encourage and protect a little bit those people who are weirdos then that I think is a pretty noble goal.

Gethard at Harold Night (March 14, 2002) | Photo: B.G. JohnsonAre there any experiences you had while an improv student that informed your approach toward working with students and younger/beginning performers now?
I took my level one class just over 10 years ago now and I think one of the major differences I see now is that the stakes were ultimately lower in a way that might have been easier for me to feel like it was okay to take chances because there were less of us getting jobs, less people showing up in commercials, there was just less to screw up. I felt like I found longform and came to NYC and found UCB because there was really no other place where I felt like I fit in at all. Almost every other area of my daily life I felt really weird and out of place. It felt like [at UCB] you could go see shows like “Bogus Sting,” which was this open mic where people would just do the most bizarre stuff and it was like yes, this is a place for that.

I remember taking a bunch of classes with Michael Delaney that were all focused on sort of outside-the-box skills that you don’t normally think of in improv where he’d have us do an entire scene while moving in reverse motion just to sort of think about it in a different way. I also think taking classes with Ian Roberts. Ian was always a champion of whoever the weirdest person in the class was. The fact that I came up and was on my first two teams with [current Stepfathers and frequent ASSSSCAT co-performer] Shannon O’Neill. She’s another person who does really bizarre stuff and if we didn’t have each other I probably wouldn’t be as comfortable doing this stuff. If anything it was just easier to find the other weirdos back then.

According to your bio, you've put your eggs into a lot of baskets, having been a contributing writer and guest performer on a number of noteworthy projects. Which of those opportunities do you hope to have more of in the future?  Do you want to write more?  Appear on more shows?
I guess the most honest answer is I want the opportunity to do more things that will have the longest lasting effect on my ability to pay my rent consistently for the rest of my life, which I think sounds a little facetious. I hope I’m not trying to sound too much like an artist because I definitely want to pay my rent, but as long as it comes through being creative and comedy I want to make that a priority. I have felt like a failure for the majority of time I’ve been doing this. I have felt like I have not been able to figure it out. I’ve been running head first into a wall and the past few years that’s started to turn around, but I think one thing I look back on -- it’s very stressful and I had so much anxiety -- it’s that I learned there is no option I will ever cut myself off from.

I like asking improvisers/writers what they find funny because it's a great insight for students like me to understand what you're doing on stage and looking for in other comedians. What do you find funny?
I have always found sad people and tragedy funny. One of my favorite movies was always Planes, Trains and Automobiles. John Candy is such a sad sack in that movie. I come from an Irish family where my mom and my aunts used to tell these stories when I was a kid and they were always hilarious and I look back and I’m like those are miserable stories. If you take away all the laughs those are the stories of really rough times. I think I kind of just learned early that to me things that have sort of sadness or desperation or loneliness at their core can easily be converted to laughter. It all goes back to truth in comedy, right? If it seems honest it can make anyone laugh. It goes back to the question you asked me about what do I look for in students, why do I work with certain students and why do I champion certain people: if I see someone who seems to really believe what they’re saying, if it seems to really come from a place where their personal experiences dictated why they’re saying what they’re saying to me, then you can always find the way in which that is funny. I’m always impressed by people who can come up with premises on their feet. I’m always impressed by people who can play these larger than life characters at a drop of a hat, but my personal interests always tend to lean towards “that seems like that person is saying that thing because it relates to something they actually feel or have experienced.”

A running gag at the last ASSSSCAT show was the fact that the backstage area flooded due to rain. How does it make you feel knowing that two hundred people will gladly pack into a supermarket basement that drips shit and floods just to see you and your friends do comedy?
It’s really an honor. I remember when I first started coming to the city sitting in a former strip club to see comedy. The fact that now people will put up with us starting a show by saying “this theater is flooding and we may need to flee” and people stay really means a lot. In spite of how big the improv comedy scene here has gotten, it makes me feel good to realize that it still has this vibe of being like a very underground thing. People have compared UCB to being like CBGBs and to me, as a fan of punk rock music as a kid, that makes me feel good. People see that it’s okay this stuff takes place in this really shitty environment. It’s cool. It’s really cool.

Photo: Justin PurnellLast thing. There’s a famous story about Richard Pryor about how he once defused a perilous situation in jail by making everyone around him laugh. You are a brilliant improviser and a funny storyteller, but it’s also true you have a belt in jiu-jitsu.
A blue belt. The second worst belt.

Second worst belt?  That kind of screws up the question a bit, but you’re in jail now and are surrounded by a bunch of roughnecks and you have to defuse the situation. Do you try and make them laugh or do you use your skills in jiu-jitsu?
What you’re describing sounds strikingly like my junior high school experience and I would say my strategy back then remains as it does today: try to make them laugh, but if they’re not in the mood to laugh I’m ready to choke someone out.

-- Lucas Hazlett is a comedy geek who improvises with anyone he can. He can be followed at his blog and can be seen performing with Nobody’s Token in the Soul Glo Project on SEPT 17 @ MIDNIGHT at The UCBT-NY.

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